Luce Irigaray

Shifting the world through breath

Luce Irigaray. Photo: Cathy Bernheim.

Luce Irigaray is one of the most renowned and polemical philosophers of our time. The author of more than thirty books, she is well known for her critical engagements with canonical figures of psychoanalytic and philosophical traditions through her landmark feminist texts such as Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), which prompted her expulsion from the Lacanian École Freudienne de Paris (EFP) because of its searing depiction of Platonic and Freudian representations of women; This Sex Which Is Not One (1977); Elemental Passions (1982); Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1991); and The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (1999). Her latest book, the lyrical and often autobiographical A New Culture of Energy: Beyond East and West (2021), was published by Columbia University Press, and draws deeply on her decades-long practice of yoga and pranayama, which she considers, as always, through the lens of difference and gender.

I WROTE THIS BOOK to thank one of my yoga teachers for having accepted to ensure my training without payment when I was involved in a lawsuit with the owners of the flat that I rented, because they sold it illegally. I began the book explaining why I approached this practice, and how doing yoga little by little has modified my way of living the real and my relations to others, and even to myself. Starting from mere narration, the book develops from a concrete lived experience to the discoveries, in living and in thinking, that an everyday practice allowed me, but also to the problems that it raised for a subjectivity trained in Western cultures.

All the chapters pass on the message that I want to express. Some correspond more to the key argument, while other chapters allow the new ideas to emerge, to be perceived and tasted. For example, the chapters on compassion, on becoming incarnate with the help of animals and angels, and on the spiritual path opened by a cultivation of perceptions are particularly relevant. The Mystery of Mary, which has been published separately in other languages, has been added to the volume at the request of Columbia University Press. That text shows how it is possible to approach a religious figure differently—particularly through breath.

I have already broached the importance of silence in other books, notably in To Be Two and Sharing the World. On this subject, it is useful to distinguish two sorts of silences: the one that women have been forced to respect in a culture built by men, and the one that they freely desire to keep. In fact, the two can be productive. To be excluded from a cultural discourse permits women to more easily wonder about it, and even leave it. There is no doubt that the silence they decide to keep is more decisive in constructing their subjectivity and a culture suitable for them. Eastern cultures teach us the value of silence more than Western cultures.

Western cultures are based on a split between body and spirit. This, perhaps, explains why women practicing yoga do not want or dare to speak publicly of their practice. Personally, I think that such a split must be overcome, and that doing yoga represents a means of building a bridge between our body and our spirit. All the more so since yoga is a practice that is not only physical but also spiritual given the importance of breathing. Furthermore, the opportunity regarding this bridge comes from another tradition and corresponds to a concrete way of constructing an intercultural world in which cultures enrich one another.

As women do not have the same body as men, it is understandable that they breathe differently. Women have an important relation to the internal and intimate body. Welcoming the other in themselves, whether a lover or a fetus, asks them to breathe in a manner that differs from that which is needed to act outside themselves, as is more the case with men.

I often hear discourses that describe my thinking as utopian. And yet it generally corresponds to my way of living and not to an imaginary plan. Perhaps many people are, henceforth, so far from the real and so unable to reach it that they consider my way of living utopian. Indeed, it is foreign to their existence because it is closer to nature, less captured in past culture, and in search of the elaboration of a new culture. And it is true that changing the world does not go without a certain utopia. However, I do not want to prescribe anything for anyone. I just offer the fruit of my experience to those who attempt to make their own path. Some, with gratitude, receive from my thoughts words that are useful for their life and work. When that is not the case, searching for other thinkers and other texts is better than contenting oneself with criticism. Personally, I am very happy when I find suggestions that can rescue the world and humanity as they are in our times.